Cynthia Flanigan, 47
Director, Vehicle Research and Technology, Research and Advanced Engineering, Ford Motor Co.
Location: Dearborn, Mich.
Education: B.S., materials science and engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ph.D., materials science and engineering, Northwestern University
What drew you to the auto industry? My internship at Ford really was the way I launched into a full-time career in the industry. If I go back thinking about my roots and what I wanted to do when I graduated, I was passionate about two things. One, I really wanted to work on innovations. Second, I wanted to work on a consumer product where I could see the fruit of my labor being used on a daily basis.
First automotive job: My first job was in advanced manufacturing and engineering (in 2000). At the time Ford owned a facility that made instrument panels and consoles; it was a plastics and trim manufacturing plant. It was a really cool experience. Up to that point I don’t know if I would have envisioned myself in a long-term career. But it felt like a family, a community.
Big break: When you come in as a researcher, you have these dreams — or at least I did — of inventing something new, but also having an impact to society. I had an opportunity to work on this project which was soy-based foam. The intent was, how do you make foam for the interiors of your vehicle where you can use a bio-derived product? It was an amazing experience. Technically, it was super challenging. I think what made it even more rewarding was we spent a couple years overcoming these technical hurdles like odor or fogging issues or making sure we had the durability. The other part is, just building up the team and getting this network within the company and the supply base. We launched it in 2007 and it migrated to a lot of vehicle lines. Fast-forward a decade later and it’s on over 18 million vehicles. We’ve had the opportunity to save about 220 million pounds of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of sequestering 4 million trees annually.
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What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? When I made a purposeful decision to go from a very technical career to management. Up to that point, I had gotten a Ph.D. You become used to being very knowledgeable about a very narrow scope area. But as I worked on projects like the soy foam, it made me realize it’s super fun to work with these broader teams and learn about things you don’t know about. I learned I really loved that, so I pivoted to this management role. It was pretty challenging for me at the moment because I went from supervising a very small team, four or five people, then all of a sudden I’m responsible for a department with 65, 70 people.
You’ve been in the industry 20 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? How fast the technology around us is changing and how we can apply that to the automotive industry. Things are changing so quickly and we can harness that and apply it to the automotive industry as far as connectivity and AI and machine learning and developing features and responding to customer needs in a more personalized way.
Tell us about your family. My husband and I have been married about 23 years. It doesn’t sound very romantic, but we met doing resistance spot welding at an internship where he was co-oping and fell in love there. We have two kids, one who’s a 20-year-old; he goes to the University of Michigan studying engineering. Our daughter just started Duke in engineering. My husband and I are two engineers and both our kids are following on our path, so we’re excited to see where they’re going to go.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year, and what did you get out of it? Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. He was a psychiatrist practicing in Austria at the time World War II began and he was put into three different concentration camps. From his perspective, he really concentrated less about the horrific nature of what went on but more about the survival mechanisms and how it’s really important for people to have a purpose in life. It was really uplifting while at the same time set in a really difficult situation to read about. It’s super impactful and really spurred a lot of self-reflection.
— Michael Martinez